‘Grief tech’ avatars aim to take the sting out of death

The writer is a science commentator

Some might lay an extra place setting at the Christmas table, or put a symbolic gift under the tree that will never be unwrapped. Others may commemorate the loss of a loved one by raising a quiet toast or hiking a favourite trail.

But the rise of “grief tech” could soon allow those left behind to interact more vividly with the dead. Companies such as HereAfter AI are building “legacy avatars” of living people that can be called upon after their deaths to console the bereaved. These personalised chatbots are able to answer questions about their lives based on information they provided when they were alive.

The trend towards AI-assisted grieving, which goes beyond simply preserving the digital legacies of the deceased, may end up reshaping the way we memorialise our dead.

In some ways, technology applications of this kind are as inevitable as death itself. We already converse with avatars such as Apple’s virtual assistant Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. Deep-learning language models such as OpenAI’s GPT-3, which produces human-like text from a prompt, can be adapted to evoke the manner of a specific person, by training the model on what that person has said before. Voice cloning can then turn that text into sound that mimics their voice. Weaving such technologies together can produce a conversational artificial intelligence, or chatbot, designed to speak like a loved one.

The chatbots generated by HereAfter AI are not sophisticated polymaths like Alexa but instead offer a fairly limited repertoire of spoken responses based on personal biographies.

Charlotte Jee, a reporter for MIT Technology Review who created avatars of her living parents, described the experience of interacting with these bots as “undeniably weird”. A question to her virtual “mother” about her favourite jewellery elicited the stilted response: “Sorry I didn’t understand that. You can try asking another way, or move on to another topic.” Still, in some carefully curated situations, it might feel more engaging than listening to voicemails on repeat.

Another company, StoryFile, adds video to its digital offering. Its chief executive, Stephen Smith, showcased StoryFile’s wares by displaying a video avatar of his mother bidding farewell — at her own funeral. The companies charge either an upfront fee or a monthly subscription to access the avatars.

Lucy Selman, associate professor in palliative and end-of-life care at Bristol university in the UK, and founder of the online Good Grief Festival, describes grief tech as “an interesting advance”. But, she says, “before it is introduced more widely, a lot more research is needed into its ethical dimensions and how and when it might be useful, or indeed harmful, in serious illness and in bereavement”.

While the prospect of a continued relationship after death might reassure some, Selman says, the technology could risk delaying or prolonging grief for others. What is certain, she insists, is that this approach “won’t be for everyone, because grief is as unique as our relationships with each other”.

James Vlahos, who founded HereAfter AI in 2019 after creating a bot based on his father from recordings made before he died, said in an email that the company never created digital replicas against a person’s wishes: “Any and all people who create life-story avatars with HereAfter AI must give their active consent. They must also voluntarily participate in the process of sharing memories about their lives that provide the biographical information for their avatars.”

Parents can create avatars of terminally ill children, he explained, but as users are not questioned about their circumstances (the data-gathering interviews with participants are generally automated) he said he did not know whether any currently fitted that profile.

I do wonder what my late father would have made of it all. When alive, he resisted talking about a difficult childhood in India, a reticence that felt like an essential part of his being. Asking his avatar to spill the beans, even if he had consented to providing the information beforehand, would feel somehow wrong.

Perhaps a chatbot that can converse convincingly from beyond the grave is the next natural — or unnatural — step for some families. But, says Selman, who lost her own father when she was 15 and later suffered a stillbirth, “[grief tech] reminds us of the importance of prioritising conversations and relationships with loved ones before they die”.

That advice — that there is no time like the present to appreciate and chat to our nearest and dearest — feels like a gift for this festive season.

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